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Powell Defends Bush Middle East Policy - 2004-04-27

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday that President Bush has not pre-judged any final-status issues in Middle East peace negotiations despite his commitments this month to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Mr. Powell held talks with Qatar's foreign minister at which he raised U.S. concerns about news coverage by the Qatar-based Arabic TV network al-Jazeera. President Bush's endorsement of Mr. Sharon's plan for "disengagement," from the Palestinians and the associated exchange of letters at their April 14 White House meeting, have drawn widespread Arab criticism.

But Mr. Powell says the president's statements, that it would be unrealistic to expect an Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 borders, and that Palestinian refugees would be expected to have the right of return only to a Palestinian state, were only taking into account "obvious realities."

The secretary made the comments at a joint press appearance with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim al-Thani, who raised his own concerns about the course of U.S. Middle East policy.

Mr. Powell said the understandings with Mr. Sharon have not changed the president's commitment to the international "road map" to peace, or to his June 2002 policy statement calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"[The] president clearly wanted to also take account of obvious realities we all recognize with respect to right of return, and final borders have to be aligned in accordance with the reality on the ground, as mutually agreed upon between the parties," he said. "So the president has not moved one step away from his vision [but] acknowledged reality on the ground. And we hope that in the course of our conversations with our guest here today as well as other Arab leaders, they will come to understand the president's position more clearly."

For his part, Sheikh al-Thani said there do appear to be positive elements to the Sharon plan, which is to start with an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. But he said there are many other points that need clarification.

"We have no doubt about the seriousness with which the United States takes this issue, and especially President Bush, about the Israeli Palestinian conflict," said Sheikh al-Thani. "There are some positive signs in the plan which Sharon gave. But there is many other things which we don't understand up until now. We support any effort to bring the land of the Palestinians back to them and also we hope that in any negotiation in the future that we see also with the Israeli party and the Palestinian party and the United States, so the negotiation could be on a mutual basis."

Mr. Powell and his Qatari counterpart spoke after an initial round of talks in a bilateral "strategic dialogue," in which the secretary said he renewed U.S. complaints about news coverage from Iraq and elsewhere of the Qatar-based Arabic TV network al-Jazeera.

Administration officials have repeatedly accused al-Jazeera of anti-American incitement. They have also criticized the network for airing unedited versions of tapes from al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and other terrorists leaders threatening the United States and its allies with attacks.

Mr. Powell did not elaborate on the discussion about al-Jazeera, but said U.S.-Qatari friendship is such that they can discuss what he termed "difficult issues that intrude in that relationship."

He said the two sides were having "very intense" discussions about the matter which would continue over the next couple of days.

Qatari officials have in the past fended off U.S. complaints about the network, citing a desire to promote a free press.